Saturday, May 8, 2010

Art I'm Looking At: "Mt. Peace-more"

I came across this today at A.P. Giannini School, in San Francisco. My photograph makes it hard to judge scale, but the mural is about 40 feet wide and more than 15 feet high. It's been there for years, but it's sprouted a portrait of President Obama since I last saw it, head and shoulders above the other denizens of "Mt. Peace-more." I don't think this needs much comment, but it interests me on a number of levels. It's interesting that an addition was made to the original mural, it's interesting that the Obama bust is positioned to dominate so completely, it's interesting that the portrait has been copied directly from Shepard Fairey's poster of Obama that was itself copied--without attribution--from a photograph of Obama by Mannie Garcia. As Vladimir Nabokov once said "Everybody loves a metamorphosis"--or something to that effect.

Places I'm visiting: Strybing Arboretum at Golden Gate Park (May 8, 2010)

I took a walk around Strybing Arboretum in Golden Gate Park this morning after a tasty breakfast at Park Chow, on Ninth St., near the Ninth St. entrance to the park. It's been about a year since last visiting and the place looks wonderful. Many of the pathways have been redone and most of the unsightly untended areas have been weeded and replanted. The place looks great. Everything is in bloom at the moment. It's well worth a visit right now.

In the cactus and succulent section I spent about an hour watching birds, including Pygmy Nuthatches, Anna's Hummingbirds, Rufous Hummingbirds (although these may have been Allen's Hummingbirds), White-crowned Sparrows, and Song Sparrows. The sparrows were drinking nectar from huge, chartreuse Puya chilensis blossoms. According to an Internet search, the main pollinator of this plant in its native habitat (arid hillsides in the Andes between about 300 and 1,000 meters) is Curaeus curaeus, the Austral Blackbird, but the sparrows were certainly providing pollination services here. I photographed a Song Sparrow (middle photo) and a White-crowned Sparrow (bottom photo) each with a saffron head. I guess that's one way to confuse a beginning bird watcher. I also got a good shot of one of the hummingbirds (photo above).

By the way, a proposal is being made to start charging admission to the Arboretum--which would be a shame. If you agree, you can help by signing the petition at Keep the Arboretum Free.

Plants I'm Growing--First Blooms: Salvia Chamaedryoides, Ceanothus "Skylark," Rhododendron "Goldflimmer"

New plants blooming in the garden yesterday and today: First blooms yesterday (May 7) on Salvia chamaedryoides, first blooms today (May 8) on the big Ceanothus called "Skylark" and the rhododendron "Goldflimmer."

Salvia chamaedryoides is planted in several places in the garden. The plant hidden behind the fig tree started blooming yesterday. The other examples in the garden look like they won't bloom for another day or two. My records say this plant first bloomed on May 8, in 2009, which would mean a year of 364 days, but I'm not sure which plant I recorded.

"Skylark" is always the last of the Ceanothus varieties in the garden to bloom. Flowers first opened last year on May 4. A year according to "Skylark" was therefore 368 days.

"Goldflimmer" is one of the very few rhododendrons with variegated leaves. The plant has done very well here planted up against a fence that runs north-south, which gives the plant morning sun and afternoon shade. This has been one of the most carefree rhododendrons in the garden. I don't have a record of the first blooms on this plant in 2009.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Birds I'm Watching: Sugarloaf Ridge State Park (May 6, 2010)

I took a walk at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park this morning, hiking up Bald Mountain Trail. It was the first time I've been there birding and only my second visit to the place. I was hoping to see Western tanagers, lazuli buntings, and blue-gray gnatcatchers, all of which would be life birds for me (I've never really birded seriously in the appropriate habitat in the summer). No tanagers and no buntings, but I saw my first blue-gray gnatcatcher (pictured)--and my second, and my third, and fourth, and fifth, and sixth, and seventh: I saw three pairs and an individual. I also heard some that I couldn't see. They were all over. If you want to see this bird, this is the spot right now. (Thanks to Bill Doyle for the recommendation.) There were also wrentits all over the place. I heard maybe ten vocalizing and saw three, which is rather unusual, I think.

Other birds I saw were: Wild turkey, black-headed grosbeak, violet-green swallow, barn swallow, cliff swallow, Western bluebird, Nuttall's woodpecker, robin, Pacific-slope flycatcher, scrub jay, Steller's jay, ruby-crowned kinglet, Bewick's wren (which appeared to be in a nest), Anna's hummingbird, turkey vulture, orange-crowned warbler, spotted towhee, California towhee, Western kingbird, mourning dove, oak titmouse, lesser goldfinch, and black phoebe. Twenty-seven species. I heard about five more species I couldn't identify, but one was probably a pileated woodpecker. I was interested to find a big stand of Western chain fern (Woodwardia fimbriata) growing wild and some coffee fern (Pellaea andromedifolia) growing in crevices in the rocks. The latter is one I've been trying to find in a nursery for ages. One of these years....

For more information about bird watching in Sonoma County, see my Website Sonoma County Bird Watching Spots.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Wines I'm Drinking: 2003 Domaine la Rocalière Lirac

I recently picked up a few bottles of the 2003 Domaine La Rocalière Lirac at Grocery Outlet on the strength of the name Lirac, which is one of my favorite southern Rhône villages. At their best, the wines of Lirac are ripe and fruity and redolent of violets but with some finesse as well. I was surprised to see a 2003 Lirac on the shelves. I was hoping it would be a soft, mature wine with some of the characteristics I most associate with Lirac. I was not disappointed. I will go back first thing tomorrow morning to buy a case of this. It's a bargain at only $4.99 a bottle (or $4.49 a bottle by the case).

The wine is a deep brick red, showing its age. It has hints of citrus on the nose, but mostly offers earthy, compost-like scents, barnyard scents reminiscent of a good Burgundy, and violets--in short, everything I was hoping for. The wine is is ripe and rich on the palate with a long, sweet finish suggestive of raisins or prunes (in a good way) and just enough delicate tannin to keep things interesting. Yes, it's a bit soft--not much acidity--but it's not flat either. It's definitely mature, and I wouldn't expect it to get better at this stage, but I'd say it's good for immediate consumption--the kind of wine I love to find: better than average and cheaper than it ought to be. But, I should stop writing now. I might begin to wax Liracal. This wine normally retails for about $15.  Recommended.

[Update: Having bought a case shortly after writing this review and now consumed about half of the bottles, I can say that the quality has been quite variable (possibly storage issues). The best bottles have been as described above. One or two have seemed rather tired. One was virtually undrinkable. Still, not a bad deal at this price. The entire case cost only about $59.]

Plants I'm Growing--First Blooms: Cistus "Elma," Garden Sage, Salvia Lyrata (2010)

Three more plants came into first bloom in the garden today: One of the big rock roses (Cistus laurifolius x palhinhaii) "Elma," a large plant with slightly sticky, dark green leaves; garden sage (Salvia officianalis); and a low-growing salvia with a basal rosette of purple leaves that I believe is probably Salvia lyrata, although I'm not 100% sure. "Elma" has done well in some locations in the garden, less well in others, for reasons that are obscure to me. It's very pretty when it's happy. It has a touch of the ladanum scent that makes Cistus ladanifer so attractive. Ladanum (not to be confused with laudanum) is a common component of many perfumes. Cistus ladanifer is another one of the rock roses that has been somewhat difficult to grow. It seems to need more water than it typically gets here.

I first planted Salvia lyrata in the garden about five years ago. It didn't do well. It died after only one season, but not before spreading its seed. Since then, several plants have become established in places they seem to like better than the spot I originally chose. I let them have their way. The small white flowers are not very showy, but the basal rosette of dark purple-green leaves is always attractive.

Salvia officianalis, or garden sage, is one of the herbs I keep around for cooking. Parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, chives, and oregano are thriving at the moment. The chives, thyme, sage, and rosemary are in bloom, although the rosemary is mostly finished now. Seeds are forming. These are a favorite of the house finches, American goldfinches, and lesser goldfinches that are daily visitors to the garden.

Music I'm Writing: A Miniature

Today I post a little musical offering--a musical haiku of sorts--, my Miniature No. 1. I learned not long ago that there's a fairly well established genre of miniatures of 100 notes or less. The idea of a miniature is not new to me, of course, but I didn't know that pieces of 100 notes or less have an established following or that there are competitions specifically for works of this type. No one seems to agree on exactly how to count 100 notes, but I have counted chords on the piano and multiple stops on the violin as a single note. Using that method, this piece is 97 notes long. The link will be good for only one week, or until May 11. If you listen to it, I hope you like it.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Plants I'm Growing--First Blooms: Yarrrow, Monkey Flower, Yellow Rose (2010)

More new plants are blooming in the garden today.

Two types of monkey flower (Mimulus sp.) started blooming this morning--one a plain orange-yellow, like the native sticky monkey flower but with broader leaves that aren't very sticky, the other known as "Azalea-flowered monkey flower."

The one yellow rose in the garden--I don't know its name--also bloomed today, as did the low, white yarrow I planted last year, which I believe is Achillea kellereri (pictured below).

The Azalea-flowered monkey flower bloomed last year on April 22. A year according to this plant was 375 days. The yellow rose bloomed on May 4 last year, for a year of 364 days.

Found Art: Moth Wing (May 3, 2010)

Another piece of found art. This one is unusual in that it landed on my doorstep, as if it wanted to be photographed. A strikingly colored moth that looks very much like a leopard skin. Beautiful.

A little Internet research suggests this is a Mexican tiger moth (Notarctia proxima). It looks more like a leopard to me--but that appears to be its name. Should I tell this Mexican moth that this is Sonoma County?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Wines I'm Drinking: A Jaunt Around the Valleys

I spent much of the weekend escorting friends of friends from Japan around the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Like the New Yorker who never visits the Empire State Building, I rarely go tasting at the big wineries these days (and especially not at the sometimes snooty Napa wineries). I usually stick to the smaller Sonoma tasting rooms where I buy wine fairly regularly. So, this was reason to go further afield. The vineyards, clothed with new growth, are beautiful right now--in some places like a shag carpet in chartreuse.

We started Friday with a glass of sparkly on the terrace at Gloria Ferrer, which has one of the best views anywhere in the region. You can see almost the entirety of the Carneros appellation, which spans the southern parts of Napa and Sonoma counties, just north of San Pablo Bay (the roundish projection at the top of San Francisco Bay proper). It was cool with a light breeze but clear and sunny. A perfect way to start the day.

We moved on to Domaine Chandon in Yountville (Napa County) to take the winery tour, which remains interesting, but I can't help feeling cheated by it; I remember when it included views of the disgorging process (during which the settled yeast in the bottles is popped out in a frozen plug of wine) and the bottling line. Now the tour is about half as long as it once was and it costs $12 a head. It used to be free.

Lunch afterwards at Étoile, the restaurant at the winery. Étoile has just received a Michelin star. I was a little disappointed to tell the truth. My vichyssoise was excellent. It was served poured over a layer of goodies such as tiny potato balls, shredded smoked pork, cooked greens, and something that had been marinated in vinegar. Every bite was a surprise. This is what great food should be. However, my main course, duck confit, was tasty, but not extraordinary. Still, it was a very pleasant meal.

Later in the day we went to Opus One and then to Joseph Phelps.  It has been a while since I've tasted Opus One. They are pouring the 2005 and 2006 wines ($30 for a 4oz pour--which sounds like a lot, but that prices a full bottle at about $190, in line with its retail price). I was very surprised at how supple and approachable these wines are already--especially the 2006. I was expecting them to be far tighter and more tannic than they were. I wonder how they will age?

Joseph Phelps has another of the wonderful views in the area. The winery terrace overlooks a shallow valley with a small lake in the distance. A dirt road winds through the valley floor. The near side is planted in Cabernet Sauvignon, the far side with Sauvignon Blanc and Scheurebe, which is used to make dessert wines. A downy woodpecker was going in and out of a nest hole in a tree just a few feet from the terrace. California quail were calling in the distance. The wines were excellent, as always--particularly the current vintages of the Ovation Chardonnay, the Insignia, and the Backus Vineyards Cabernet.

On Saturday, we went to the Santa Rosa farmers' market, starting the day with oysters in butter and garlic and then moved on to Café Citti for lunch--garlicky Caesar's salad and the house ravioli with ground pork and chard stuffing in a light tomato cream sauce, washed down with a bottle of the backyard Cabernet Sauvignon. I've never brought my own wine to Café Citti before, but they were very happy to serve it and charged no corkage. Wonderful.

We tasted at Chateau St. Jean, Enkidu, and Wellington Vineyards. The highlight of the Chateau St. Jean tasting was the Robert Young Vineyard Reserve Chardonnay. Enkidu I had never been to before, but I was impressed by the 2006 Kick Ranch Sonoma Valley Syrah and very interested to find that the grapes come from the Rincon Valley, not more than a few miles from my own house. Wellington is one of my favorite wineries in the Sonoma wine country. The wines are excellent, reasonably priced, and the tasting room people are about the nicest you're likely to encounter anywhere.

Plants I'm Growing--First Blooms:Buddleia "Sungold," Lupinus Arboreus (Yellow), Cistus Argenteus, Purple Toadflax (2010),

I spent a very busy weekend escorting friends of friends around wineries in Napa and Sonoma, so I'm tardy in reporting what started blooming yesterday in the garden--four new plants.

First blooms on the orange-yellow butterfly bush with globe-shaped flower clusters (Buddleia globosa). I believe it is called "Sungold." This is a plant I found at one of the plant sales at Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco. It has done well here. It suffers toward the end of our dry summers, but it can be cut down to about 18 inches at the end of the season and it comes back very strongly in the spring--like nearly all of the butterfly bush (Buddleia) varieties. This one is striking for both its color and the round flower clusters. Most Buddliea come in whites, pinks, and purples. I don't have a record of this coming into flower in 2009.

The yellow bush lupine (Lupinus arboreus) had its first flowers of 2010 yesterday. This is a wonderfully fragrant large lupine (up to about six feet across and usually four to five feet high--although it takes well to pruning). I fell in love with it many years ago out at Bodega Head where I first saw hundreds of them. They are beginning to come into flower right now out at the coast as well. A little bit of the seaside in the back yard. Last year this plant first bloomed on April 26. A year according to Lupinus arboreus was thus 371 days. This plant is also referred to as Lupinus arborescens. I don't know which is correct.

Purple todflax (Linaria purpurea) is starting to bloom all over the garden. I bought two of these about three years ago. I let them go to seed. They sprout like weeds all over the place. I pull the ones that come up in inconvenient places and leave the rest. There is a pink variety as well. They are both pretty enough that I'm content to put up with their weedy ways. I didn't record the first blooms on this plant in 2009.

The rock rose "Silver Pink" (Cistus aureus) starting blooming yesterday as well--although I'm not entirely sure this is the right name. I seem to have lost track of the names of many of the rock rose species in the garden (there are at least eight). There are many hybrids and sometimes multiple common names for the same plant; it can be confusing. This one--whatever it is--is very attractive, but the plant hasn't been all that robust. It remains fairly spindly. I've had trouble getting it to fill out. Most of the rock roses are pretty much maintenance free. This one has required a little pampering. Perhaps it doesn't get quite enough sun where it is right up agains the side of the house.... I don't seem to have a record for this plant in 2009.

The garden is probably at its best right now. Hundreds of plants are in bloom. There is something in every corner. Because of the late rains, everything still looks fresh. I wish I could show it to you.

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